The “energy crisis” of the 1970s was all about the supply (and the price) of fossil fuels. Looking back on it half a century later, it’s clear that the real crisis was (and is) the human addiction to fossil fuels, which we in the “developed” world have been unable to shake off. Now the “climate emergency” is forcing us – those of us who are not mired in denial – to see that we have become dependent not only on the use and abuse of oil, but also on the infrastructure which it made possible.
The only cure for this chronic disease is to build a new infrastructure, and adopt a new “lifestyle”, that can be powered mostly by renewable energy sources. Nothing less can mitigate the fourfold crisis (of ecology, economy and equity as well as energy) which now threatens the viability of life on earth. This has to be part of the “Green New Deal”, but we aren’t always realistic about the challenge of actually doing it at this stage of the game.
On the matter of “lifestyles” (as we used to call them back in the 20th century), I will close with a reflection from Bill McKibben, in his book Falter. He says that of all the lives on Earth, the most curious
are the human ones, because we can destroy, but also because we can decide not to destroy. The turtle does what she does, and magnificently. She can’t not do it, though, any more than the beaver can decide to take a break from building dams or the bee from making honey. But if the bird’s special gift is flight, ours is the possibility of restraint. We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. That’s our superpower, even if we exercise it too rarely.
Every part of the world that has invested heavily in renewables and efficiency has found these sectors to be much more powerful job creators than fossil fuels. When New York State made a commitment to get half its energy from renewables by 2030 (not fast enough), it immediately saw a spike in job creation.
The accelerated time line of the US Green New Deal will turn it into a jobs machine. Even without federal support—indeed, with active sabotage from the White House—the green economy is already creating many more jobs than oil and gas. According to the 2018 US Energy and Employment Report (USEER), jobs in wind, solar energy efficiency, and other clean energy sectors outnumbered fossil jobs by a rate of three to one. That is happening because of a combination of state and municipal incentives and the plummeting costs of renewables. A Green New Deal would take the industry supernova while ensuring that the jobs have salaries and benefits comparable to those offered in the oil and gas sector.
There is no shortage of research to support this …
— Naomi Klein, On Fire (p. 281). Knopf Canada. Kindle Edition.
Unfortunately, the recent federal election in Canada shows very little popular support for the Green New Deal, especially in those parts of the country that need it most for job creation. Both the Green and New Democratic Party platforms called for accelerating the transition from oil dependence to renewable energy by eliminating subsidies to the oil industry and redirecting government money to build up wind and solar infrastructure and retrain workers for it. But neither party got many votes in Alberta or Saskatchewan; most of the votes there went to the Conservatives, who are more interested in conserving the profitability of oil extraction than in conserving an environment that is healthy for everybody to live in.
This leaves most of the oil patch workers in dead-end jobs: either those jobs will disappear because the green shift will resolve to keep the oil in the ground, as required to bring down carbon emissions – or climate change will degrade the ecosystems to the point where the economy will collapse, bringing oil workers down with it. Most likely the actual outcome will be somewhere between those two extremes, but the oil patch seems to be in deep denial about both scenarios. Is that because people generally resist changes in how they make a living, instead of embracing new opportunities? Or is it because the Big Oil executives are using propaganda effectively to prevent workers from seeing the reality of their situation? Again, maybe it’s both.
Anyway, neither the Liberal minority government nor the Conservatives show any sign of supporting the kind of “new deal” that would improve the lives of workers in the coming decades. It will take a massive social movement to overcome all this inertia. This is perhaps the major point of Naomi Klein’s new book, which I can recommend to anyone with an interest in the transition we are now going through, and how our lives will be different when today’s teenagers are running the show.